How an accidental FOI request laid bare Cambridge’s slippery sidewalks

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Some of you may recognize the work of Saul Tannenbaum. He’s been writing for the NeighborMedia program at CCTV, which is their effort at civic journalism. While writing for CCTV (Cambridge Community Television), he filed a series of FOI requests and unearthed loads of information on the locations and fines attached to sidewalk-clearing violations during the Snowpacalypse this past winter, which he then helpfully mapped.

While the map that laid out the violations across Cambridge has been what’s gotten the most attention, Saul himself is focusing more on what his investigation reveals about Cambridge’s snow removal tracking system as a whole. To him, there were two crucial things revealed by his requests.

The good news, says Tannenbaum, is that “the time it took for Cambridge to close a complaint (that is, send an inspector and record an outcome), decreased dramatically over time. They got much better at it.” This bodes well for the future management of snowstorms like the series we saw the past four months or so. In his followup article—posted after our interview—he put up a graph showing that for the month of January, the time it took to close a complaint dropped each week, before spiking in the beginning of February. It then settled back into a pattern of decreasing every week. On the other hand, though, Tannenbaum points out that “the internal IT systems used to support this effort aren’t really very good. There are separate systems for complaints and violations, and the inspectors need to copy data from one to the other.” Not only that, but “the web reporting form for complaints is primitive and buggy.”

How did Saul Tannenbaum, a recently-retired IT Architecture and Planning employee for a local university, become the champion of everyone to ever slip on the sidewalk in front of a neighbor’s house and wonder if they were fined for not clearing it? “My first request was almost by accident,” says Tannenbaum, who had simply asked Cambridge’s Public Works Commissioner about who he should request the snow information from as part of a larger conversation. Lisa Peterson, the Commissioner, responded that “she said it was her and that she’d start working on my request,” and just like that he had filed his first request without even intending to.

His second request, which asked for even more data, took longer to get a response to, given that he filed it during the most busy snowy period of the year, meaning the Department of Public Works was quite busy. After that request was fulfilled, Tannenbaum put in a request for more up-to-date data for snow violations. This one, however, was ironically bogged down by a City Council attempt to create more transparency. You can read the full story here, but the gist is that the way the Council went about trying to facilitate Saul’s work ended up delaying it. All the same, Tannenbaum thinks he’s done at least some good by bringing the information that he has to light. As of his most recent posting, the City Council has indeed gotten the snow data from the DPW that had been impeded by their order released for public viewing here. His requests “caught the City Counci’ls attention, which is a good thing,” Tannenbaum remarks, “But how much effect that has on city processes is an open question.”

Over the next few months, Tannenbaum hopes to pursue information on all the FOI requests filed in the city of Cambridge, a pursuit he hopes will reveal successful methods of requesting.

Supreme Court Mandates Fed Release Bank Loan Data

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The Supreme Court ruled earlier this week that the Federal Reserve must release information about emergency loans it made to banks at the onset of the financial crisis in 2008. The judicial decision rejects an appeal from the Clearing House Association LLC, a group of large banks that asked for the information to be kept confidential.

Bloomberg News initially used the Freedom of Information Act to request hundreds of pages of documents that provide insight into the Fed’s $3.5 trillion spending program. The Fed declined to the release the information, but a federal trial court, and later an appeals court, ruled that the Fed comply with the request. With urging from the Clearing House Association, and despite President Obama’s attempts at dissuasion, the Supreme Court took on the case.

While this is the first time that the Fed has been forced to release information about its 98-year discount window lending program, the decision is unlikely to set a precedent. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act passed last summer sets new parameters for when and how sensitive banking information is released.

Obama Makes Slight Progress in FOIA Openness, Report Finds

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To coincide with national Freedom of Information Day and Sunshine Week, the non-profit open information organization OMB Watch released its analysis of 2010 annual FOIA reports from 25 federal government agencies. The report painted a picture of improving FOIA responsiveness, saying that the Obama administration is slowly rebuilding a culture of government openness in the wake of a Bush administration era of secrecy.

The report found that pending FOIA requests dropped slightly from two years ago, and the percentage of requests granted grew slightly. The use of exemptions to reject FOIA requests also went down. Nonetheless, the percentage of granted requests remains below a peak reached in 1998.

Obama has worked with the Justice Department to encourage the reduction of backlogged requests. The number of requests awaiting response grew markedly between the 1998 and 2006 fiscal years, and then saw sharp declines between 2008 and 2009. The dramatic drop was not repeated this past fiscal year, but continued a steady decline.

On average, Obama’s administration invoked Exemptions 2 and 5 – the most subjective exemptions – less frequently than in 2009, but still more than during Bush and Clinton’s terms. The Supreme Court recently narrowed the scope of exemption 2.

Another statistic: The Obama administration granted 95% of requests in 2010, which compares favorably to Bush’s 93% and Clinton’s 89%. Obama’s agencies, however, partially granted more requests than their predecessors. This begs the less quantifiable question of how the level of useful released information compares to previous years.

The results of the analysis are good news, but illustrate that the federal government still has a lot of room for improvement in its FOIA effectiveness, OMB Watch’s executive director Gary Bass told the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Obama’s emphasis on more active stewardship of FOIA began on his first day in office, when he promised to, “usher in a new era of open government.” The administration honored this year’s Sunshine Week by unveiling a new website, FOIA.gov, which includes data comparing the administration’s progress on key metrics to previous years.

Sunshine Week has prompted a number of analyses of the government’s progress on responsiveness to FOIA requests, including some with more negative outlooks. The Associated Press, which examined 35 agencies, concluded that the government “took action on fewer requests for federal records from citizens, journalists, companies and others last year even as significantly more people asked for information.”

The 2011 Knight Open Government Survey found that Obama is halfway towards his goal towards more open government. The report found that around half of the government’s 90 agencies have complied with the president’s mandate to make concrete changes to improve their FOIA processes, up from 13 agencies the year before.

FOIA Exemption 2 (High) falls low

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The Supreme Court chose to limit the reach of an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act on Monday, adopting a narrow interpretation of the ability to withhold agency records. The near unanimous decision in Milner v. Department of Navy constrained the scope of FOIA’s Exemption 2, which protects from release any information “related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency.”

The case took shape when the Navy denied anti-nuclear activist Glen Milner’s FOIA request for maps of its main West Coast ammunition dump near Port Townsend, Washington. The Navy cited Exemption 2 in telling him that, “the disclosure would threaten the security of the base and surrounding community,” according to the Supreme Court decision. Claiming residents near the base may be at risk of an explosion, Milner appealed and lost in District Court and the Court of Appeals.

The Supreme Court case, which was argued in December, turned into a question about the meaning of the word “personnel.” Crooker v. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, a 1981 D.C. Circuit court case, established that while the word referred to “pay, pensions, vacations, hours of work, lunch hours, parking, etc.” it also encompassed “predominantly internal” information as well. The exemption took on two definitions: “High 2” to represent sensitive government information and “Low 2” to represent routine employee data.

In Justice Elena Kagan’s decision, she abolished the invocation of “High 2.” She wrote: “Exemption 2, consistent with the plain meaning of the term ‘personnel rules and practices,’ encompasses only records relating to issues of employee relations and human resources. The explosives maps and data requested here do not qualify for withholding under that exemption.”

The lone judge to vote against the decision was Justice Stephen Breyer, who wrote in his dissent that the court should hesitate to change the meaning of a word that was established 30 years ago by another federal judge. “I would let sleeping legal dogs lie,” he wrote.

The upending of the old definition will make it vastly more difficult for federal agencies to withhold documents under Exemption 2, which has historically been widely used. The provision was invoked 72,000 times last year alone.

This decision follows closely after last week’s decision in Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T, Inc., which barred corporations from claiming the right to personal privacy from the disclosure of law enforcement records under FOIA’s Exemption 7(C).

FOI Friday: Now with 5% more accountability!

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Hello and welcome to another FOI Friday! Today’s when you get to see what we here at MuckRock are keeping an eye on in the world of FOI. Cool requests and interesting information from the week can be found below. All of the stuff we’re looking at can be found here anytime you like, and if you have any suggestions, please send them on over to tips@muckrock.com.

Now to the news:

Funds for D.C.’s needy go elsewhere: Yvette Alexander, a Democrat on Washington DC’s city council, has raised more than $120,000 since 2007 to help her constituents, a number that rose to its current amount after she sponsored a bill to double the amount allowed. According to the Office of Campaign Finance, however, only 5% of that money has been used to help the constituents of the 7th Ward. The rest has been used to pay her bills, hire consultants, and other purposes. Alexander has also refused several FOI requests that have been filed by Jackie Pinckney-Hackett, a 7th Ward activist. She believes that Alexander and the council as a whole are “stonewalling”, because they have yet to release information that should be freely available to the public, i.e. a detailed audit of Alexander’s expenses.

City refuses to identify workers disciplined for viewing porn: In Springfield, Illinois, the State Journal-Register (a local newspaper) has requested the names of City Water, Light and Power employees who had been disciplined for using their work computers to view pornographic materials. The paper filed a FOI request for the names on January 26th and has yet to hear back. Stranger than the lack of information being released—many FOI requests are denied, and this one may be considered an invasion of the employees’ privacy—is the fact that the Register has yet to receive any official word of denial, which also means they have yet to be given the protocol to appeal a denial. They are simply in limbo, unable to get their information but unsure why they can’t. During this time, the Register and city officials have been firing back and forth at each other, each trying to convince the other of the illegality of what they hope to do.

Supreme Court denies AT&T ‘personal privacy’ rights regarding FOIA: After AT&T reached a $500,000 settlement with the FCC in 2004 over allegations that the phone company was abusing a government program that sponsored internet access for cash-strapped schools, the company must have thought they’d heard the last of that mess. So when competitors of AT&T began using the FOI Act to request documents from the FCC’s investigation, AT&T got squeamish and took the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that it was a violation of the company’s privacy. The Supreme Court, of course, shot that down, given that AT&T is a company, not an individual, and therefore has no right to privacy under FOI laws.

Is DHS Spying on the Drudge Report?: According to Bob Barr and his watchdog group Liberty Guard, the federal government may be spying on anti-TSA advocates such as Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report. Barr’s claims are in response to a TSA document leaked in 2010 that stated “any person, group or alternative media source” who was openly opposed to TSA security measures would be considered a domestic extremist by the government. Barr has filed a FOI request for all government documents concerning Drudge to prove whether or not the government is spying on high-profile “domestic extremists”.

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